'I was sad, damaged, hopeless'
NEW YORK // Manju Gurung was 13 when Nepalese Maoist rebels forced her to join their struggle against the central government, the start of a two-year ordeal in which she missed out on an education, risked her life and lost her childhood. Starved, beaten and repeatedly threatened, Ms Gurung, who is now in her late teens, describes being "sad, damaged, hopeless" during an extended service in which she was separated from her impoverished family in central Nepal.
"They trained me to use .303 rifles, INSAS, SLR and AK47. They also taught us how to make and detonate bombs," she said. In 2007, the teenager returned home, but suspicious villagers rejected her as a former member of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. She was not able to reintegrate until she received help from human rights groups. Now, she has found acceptance as a child rights activist, and has been praised as a "model for other children" by the top UN official on child soldiers, Radhika Coomaraswamy, for rebuilding her life and reintegrating in to her village.
This year, a UN deal with Nepalese Maoists saw almost 3,000 children released from service, part of growing international efforts to spare youngsters from the horrors of conflict. While the former child soldier, Ms Gurung, welcomes UN efforts to spare other youngsters from military servitude, she recognises that - even for the underage Nepalese Maoist fighters demobilised earlier this year - international action often arrives too late. "I am happy ... but I also feel sad for them because I have been through the challenges they will have to face."